Bikepackers love to bring just the essentials, stripping down to the bare minimum in terms of gear, but when it comes to personal hygiene, we owe it to ourselves to act responsibly and bring a full hygiene and health kit. Long, multi-day rides take us through stunning scenery but can wear on our bodies. Here, I cover gear related to genital comfort, infection prevention, and menstruation needs, using my personal experience and gear choices as a guide. However, I hope readers make their own decisions based on their needs.
Although I identify as a menstruating woman with a vagina, this article is for anyone sharing my anatomy, as I want to acknowledge that my anatomy can exist across genders and identities and is often referred to by a variety of names. With internal genitals, we have extra concerns as they are more susceptible to UTIs (urinary tract infection) and yeast infections than external genitals. We all experience UTIs, yeast infections, and bike-fit differently, and your specific needs may be different than mine.
Chamois are incredibly popular for riders everywhere. Their cushion provides amazing comfort on all sorts of rides but also provides an ideal breeding ground for bacteria when worn for multiple days without a thorough wash. And as we know, bacteria can lead to unwanted infections on the trail. For this reason alone, I opt not to wear chamois and instead invested in a comfortable seat. And I am not alone. Many pro-riders opt to go chamois-less, citing that unhygienic chamois can lead to saddle sores. It makes sense budget-wise as well. A pair of nice chamois can cost between $40 and $150, while a Brooks saddle costs around $150 and lasts longer, making it a worthwhile investment.
For my body, I can ride all day for multiple days without chamois in complete comfort. The caveat is that I must avoid wearing a backpack, as it puts extra pressure on my sensitive bits leading to feelings of discomfort and soreness. On routes better suited to backpack wearing (i.e., hike-a-bike routes), compromises might need to be made.
Here's my tip if you’re prone to saddle sores: bring some Hydrocortisone and apply when necessary. You might find the sores to be less irritating and to heal quicker.
Opting to not wear chamois means you’ll likely be wearing underwear on your ride. (Note: You can wear underwear with chamois, but it can lead to chafing.) If I am riding for more than two consecutive days, I bring three pairs of wool underwear. While I tend not to splurge on my gear, for me, wool underwear is a necessity and worth the extra cash (and no, they are not itchy). I specifically buy wool because of its antimicrobial properties, which help keep the underwear clean and in turn can prevent a UTI or yeast infection.
Typically, I wear a different pair each day and do my best to frequently wash them. Depending on how remote my trip is, I will wash them in bathroom sinks when possible. If the route is very remote and I’m washing in streams, I use river rocks to get them a little extra clean, and I avoid the use of soap whenever possible, as biodegradable soaps still harm ecosystems. To dry my underwear, I tie them somewhere on my bike and let the breeze and sun dry them.
To prevent UTIs and other infections, the goal should be to keep the genital area clean and dry to minimize the chance of bacteria growth. Moisture produced from sweat is unavoidable but left-over urine after peeing can be minimized. Toilet paper can be considered trash, and I avoid using it when possible. Rather than doing the “shake until dry technique,” I bring a cotton bandana to re-use as toilet paper after peeing. I find the “shake until dry technique” to not be effective for my body and to lead to unwanted moisture in my underwear. While I use a cotton bandana, others might prefer other materials or “high-tech” pee rag, which is sold exclusively for this purpose and made from antibacterial materials. After using my pee-rag, I clean my hands with hand sanitizer and tie my pee-rag to my bicycle to dry.
Fortunately, the above methods have warded off yeast infections and UTIs on my tours. However, if you are susceptible to yeast infections and UTIs and need to keep things extra clean, you may consider bringing a portable bidet. Portable bidets are essentially small, glorified bike water bottles. You can find them on a variety of websites, but if you want to find a small packable one, I’d suggest looking at your local outdoors store or REI. If you are traveling where water is a limited resource, you can also consider bringing wet wipes.
Don’t be afraid to talk to a doctor before your trip; they might have recommended procedures, supplies, or medications. Severe UTIs and yeast infections can be treated with prescription medicines, but often, you need to experience symptoms in order to get a prescription for these. If you plan on going on a remote trip where it might be impossible to get any necessary medication, you can likely talk to your doctor before the trip and get these medications before you leave. It is also worth mentioning that there are some over-the-counter medications that can help ease the symptoms until you are able to get help.
Not everyone menstruates, but if you do this section is for you. We all know the phrase, “pack it in, pack it out.” This phrase is true for menstrual products as well. For this reason — and to minimize the amount of stuff I need to bring — I bring a menstrual cup. Menstrual cups aren’t for everyone, but they help cut down on waste and on the load on your bike. Ultimately bring what you are comfortable with.
We all experience our periods differently, so be sure you bring what you need: extra snacks, medicines, etc. And don’t forget that heavy exercise can cause changes in your cycle, so come prepared.
In essence, to prevent UTIs and yeast infections, do your best to keep yourself and underwear as dry and clean as possible. Staying healthy will keep you happy and allow you to ride further. I hope these suggestions open more conversations about this topic. Discourse related to sexual organs shouldn’t be shameful; let’s share our experiences and knowledge openly as a community.